Regarding Fight Club there are two camps: those who consider it a disturbing celebration of homoerotic brutality, and those who have actually seen it. Ostensibly, it’s a movie about the creation of a ‘fight club’, where guys beat the crap out of one another bare knuckled so they can feel real again. Fight Club is also a wild ride in which some abstract concepts are explored with visceral intensity. It’s about existential dread, consumerism and the refusal to live a numb life. And it’s a movie that would rather show than tell.
The tone is set even before the formation of the club, which is a mere extension of the film’s greater themes. We meet the narrator Jack (Ed Norton), who is suffering a general malaise compounded by insomnia or, as he refers to himself, ‘not deprived of sleep, but deprived of rest’. He has the soul challenging job of investigating accidents for which his automobile company employer is culpable, using an equation that measures the cost effectiveness of out-of-court settlements versus a product recall.
Jack seeks to reconnect with authentic human emotion by joining a variety of support groups for people with terminal illnesses. It is at one such group for survivors of testicular cancer that he meets Robert Paulson (Meat Loaf). In the naked, unmediated pain of others, he finds solace. Briefly.
He becomes indignant when he encounters the same woman, Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), at every support group (even testicular cancer). Her insincerity as a ‘tourist’ diminishes his sense of authenticity in the experience of each group, and his restlessness returns.
While on a business trip, he strikes up a conversation with a fellow passenger named Tyler Durden, an unkempt Brad Pitt who ironically travels selling his own brand of soap. When Jack’s condo is firebombed he calls Tyler, who invites him to move in with him in an enormous, dilapidated mansion ‘where nothing works’, and the two of them have a blast, hitting golf balls and staying up late.
Jack stays with his day job, but also helps Tyler with his business, making designer soap out of human fat stolen from liposuction clinics. They take it to high-end department stores and sell it for 20 bucks a bar. ‘We’re selling their fat asses back to them,’ Jack snickers.
Jack and Tyler hang out in a seedy bar, and get to punching each other out in the parking lot. Other guys observe them, are really impressed, and end up forming ‘fight club’, where guys take turns beating each other up. The idea spreads, and eventually a movement is formed, wherein the dispossessed gather to exorcise their quiet desperation, by beating and being beaten into bloody pulps.
Marla shows up and starts sleeping with Tyler. But it’s only sex; she prefers the company of Jack, who still remains indignant.
Meanwhile the club has morphed into a kind of hyper-disciplined paramilitary cult. We learn that Tyler has been secretly visiting dozens of cities, setting up dozens of fight clubs, and recruiting hundreds of terrorists in order to promote chaos and acts of violence against ‘corporate art’. The ultimate goal is to recruit enough people on the inside to blow up a few key office buildings, thereby destroying all the financial records in the country.
It might seem a difficult sell to argue that a major US studio film staring one of the biggest stars in the world can be classified as subversive. But it is precisely that this audacious little broadside to consumer culture could be created using the apparatus of a major studio that makes it subversive. And casting Meat Loaf in a heartbreakingly sympathetic role would be enough subversion for any film. Director David Fincher clearly used whatever cachet he had accrued on hits like Seven (1995) to shepherd a little-known novel written by auto mechanic Chuck Palahniuk through the gauntlet of potential studio meddling. That a director at the top of his game and an actor so iconic he is practically a brand himself would do this film lends a certain credibility to the risk involved.
It is worth noting that Fight Club came out during an excellent year for American cinema. 1999 also saw Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Rushmore, Three Kings and American Beauty. Attribute it to end of the millennium psychosis, or the fact that the studios had exhausted every trend imaginable, requiring a brief ‘films that don’t suck’ fad. Whatever the reason, each project heightened expectations and affirmed the plausible commercial viability of the next. All the aforementioned were innovative and raw films, taking risks in both form and/or content. Each reflected weariness in America of a mediated, mindlessly overgrown, corporate sanitised, toxified, greedy, self-absorbed, compass-less culture.
What separates Fight Club from the other innovative films and enabled it to develop cult film status is its sheer frenetic energy. Even as it passed from second-run theatres into video release, the film lingered as a popular, weekend, midnightmovie staple. It was able to strike a chord at the right moment. It remained smart, intense and hilarious at the same time. Hilarious? A brutal hyper-intense movie funny? Yes, sometimes painfully funny. And even if the last act of the film isn’t believable, it just doesn’t matter. Because the film is deconstructing itself from the start, daring you to notice it’s a movie all along. At one point while Jack is trying to convince Marla to leave the city by bus, a couple of cinemas are visible with signs announcing the movies Seven Years in Tibet (1997, starring Brad Pitt), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996, starring Norton) and The Wings of the Dove (1997, starring Carter). It doesn’t care – it wants you to question the media continuum.
In a sea of self-referential, post-modern films, Fight Club was able to distinguish itself and gain a loyal following because it explores cynical detachment, debunks it and asks ‘what’s next’? When Tyler and Jack meet there is this exchange:
Tyler Durden: You’re very clever.
Tyler Durden: How’s that working out for you?
Tyler Durden: Being clever.
This exchange is a wonderful taunt to the audience. The director knows the audience is in on the joke. He does not dispute it. But it challenges how gratifying that really is. The essence of the film asks, ‘What if any meaning can be constructed once we have determined we are not in charge of our own lives?’
Director: David Fincher
Writer(s): Chuck Palahniuk (novel), Jim Uhls (screenplay)
Runtime(s): 139 minutes
Country: US, Germany
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.